Chis Bambery rues the missed opportunities of the German Revolution and looks at its implications for socialist strategy today

German Revolution


Imagine the world if Hitler and Stalin had not taken power. No Second World War, no Holocaust and no Gulag. This is not just an abstract “what if?” proposition. The victory of both dictators stemmed in no small part from the defeat of the German Revolution which reached its climax in October 1923.

Obviously if German workers had taken power they would have not succumbed to Hitler and the Nazis without a fight in 1933. That defeat has implications even today because the German working class emerged from World War Two very differently – all the Allied powers were determined not just there would be no repeat of the revolution which had ended the First World War in 1918 and that the radical tradition would be squeezed out.

In the autumn of 1923 the Russian working class was enthused by the prospect of revolution in Germany. The enthusiasm with which workers in Russia hung on to news from Germany, as they awaited a revolution there that autumn, showed that the heartbeat of revolution was not yet completely flat lining. The combination of workers power in the second biggest industrial economy in the world and in Soviet Russia would have been unstoppable. The revolution in Russia would not have been isolated, starved and then strangled by the state bureaucracy that rallied round Stalin. The defeat of the German Revolution left Russia isolated, a situation from which Stalin and the bureaucracy profited. No Stalin would also mean we would not have to repeatedly refute the argument that socialism equals totalitarianism.

In the event the German Communists, who had a mass party, allowed the moment to slip by, and it was not to return. In many ways Hitler represented the revenge of the right, inflicted on those who failed to make a revolution. But the German revolution was interesting in other ways too and remains important today. The Russian revolutionaries – Lenin, Trotsky and others – were very aware that any revolution in Western Europe was going to be very different from that in Russia; Russia had no tradition of parliamentary democracy, working class organisation, including the trade unions, were illegal, so there was no trade union bureaucracy, while the Czarist regime had little response to working class and peasant insurgency other than direct repression.

The Germany that emerged from the defeat of World War One, seemed the acme of parliamentary democracy. The Social Democratic Party (the equivalent of the Labour Party) had over one million members and extended great influence into large areas of working class life. The trade unions had some seven million members. Both the leaderships of the SPD and the unions were hostile to revolution in general, and the Russian Revolution in particular.

In Russia the period between the overthrow of the Czar in February 1917 and the October Revolution was measured in months. Lenin et al realised that in Germany and Western Europe things could not move so fast because the working class there retained a loyalty to ‘their’ organisations and, to a lesser extent, the creation of parliamentary democracy which they saw as ‘their’ gain.

It was common currency among the Bolshevik leadership to stress that revolution in Western Europe would be very different and follow a longer timetable than the revolution in Russia. The point was picked up by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, when he attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. Gramsci went on to develop this concept through a body of work which remains vitally relevant to revolutionaries to this day.

The formation of the new revolutionary Communist, or Third, International in 1919 was premised on the existence at its centre of two powerful Communist Parties, that of Russia and Germany. The new German Communist Party (KPD) had, in addition to a sizable membership, a powerful leadership team including Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Ernst Mayer, Paul Levi and Clara Zetkin.

Tragically Luxemburg and Jogiches, together with Karl Liebknicht, were murdered by German government forces in January 1919 and the new party would lose other battle hardened leaders in the months and years that followed. That weakened the new Communist International.

The problem, as Luxemburg was only too well aware, was that the new party needed time to develop itself but time during the revolution was in short supply. It was a young party, having only came into existence following the November 1918 revolution which overthrow the Emperor and forced the German high command and politicians to end the war.

That revolution radicalised millions of German workers, sections of the middle class and peasantry, the majority of whom shifted over to supporting the Social Democrats because only a minority were ready to jump all the way to revolutionary socialist conclusions. In Moscow that was seen as natural because the working class would have to work their way through all the options on the left before they drew the radical conclusion parliamentary democracy had to be rejected and that workers power was the only solution, and that would take years not months.

The new Social Democrat led government was faced with Workers Councils which had spread across Germany and exercised real control locally, and armed workers, soldiers and sailors on the streets. The SPD had a majority in those Workers Councils and began by arguing publicly that they could co-exist with parliamentary rule while working behind the scenes to put an end to any form of direct working class democracy as soon as was possible.

They reached a deal with the military command allowing the latter to recruit a paramilitary force, the Freikorps, from demobilised officers and NCOs – the German army having effectively disintegrated after troops returned home from the trenches. These were brought to Berlin to crush the revolution there.

The working class of Berlin was ready for revolution, but elsewhere the story was different, workers had not reached that conclusion. The government understood the trick was to provoke the Berlin workers into an insurrection which, isolated in one city, they could crush. In January 1919 that was what happened. Rosa Luxemburg knew it was a trap but could not control the infant party in the city.

What happened next was that the Berlin government set the Freikorps on tour around the country provoking similar uprisings in different areas which were then crushed brutally. The Communist Party was too small and inexperienced to co-ordinate a response nationally or to win a manoeuvre to avoid the trap as the Bolsheviks did during the July Days in 1917. During 1920 and 1921 the KPD rebuilt itself but its leadership had lost confidence in itself to a large degree. That was compounded by the actions of the dominant section of the Communist International leadership.

In 1919 and 1920 Europe had seemed on the verge of revolution, but that revolutionary wave was contained and defeated. Rather than accept that a section of the Bolshevik leadership around Gregori Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek were prepared to countenance the idea that revolutionaries needed to keep going on the offensive in order to reinvigorate the working class, despite the fact that growing unemployment was affecting working class confidence. Lenin and Trotsky were preoccupied by the civil war in Russia and the economic problems caused by that, foreign intervention and the economic blockade enforced by the Western powers.

If Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, was on the wrong track even worse were the emissaries sent from Moscow to Germany, exiles from the failed Hungarian revolution of 1919, these were zealots in demanding the “revolutionary offensive” and denouncing any attempts to work with workers who still looked to the Social Democrats and others on the left.

The KPD leadership around Paul Levi recognised the working class was on the back foot, at least temporarily, and was putting forward the idea that Communists had to form a united front with other working class forces in defence of jobs and living standards and in opposition to the far right.

In September 1920 the Independent Socialists, who stood half way between the Social Democrats and the Communists, voted to join the KPD, which overnight became a mass party. In March 1921 the newly enlarged party was put to the test when the German military and the Freikorps launched a coup to overthrow the Social Democrat government, the Kapp Putsch (named after Wolfgang Kapp, a civil servant chosen by them to head the new government).

Rather than resist, the legitimate government simply fled Berlin; everything seemed to be going to plan for the military. But the head of the German trade unions, a Social Democrat who hated the Communists, called a general strike. The military became aware that all transport had stopped, the lights and heating wasn’t working and communications were coming to a halt. The initial response of the KPD was to denounce the trade union leaders because they could not be trusted, but Levi won the party to supporting the strike.

The working class response to the Kapp Putsch still offers us a tantalising glimpse of what might have been as workers took control, as Pierre Broué recounts in some of his most gripping pages of his history of the German revolution:

“the German workers did not hear [the KPD’s] appeal for passivity. On 14 March, a Sunday, it was possible to judge the ardour and the scope of their resistance. One after another the trains ceased to move. By five o’clock in the evening there were in Berlin no trams, no water and no electricity… In Chemnitz the workers’ organisations decided immediately to recruit 3,000 men to the workers’ militia… The reality was that by the 15th, the Kapp-Luttwitz government was completely paralysed.”

A Belgian socialist who was visiting Berlin wrote, “The General Strike now grips them with its terrible silent power.”

The coup collapsed and the Social Democrats were returned to office. They allowed the military architects of the attempted takeover to carry on in command and then approved their request to go into the industrial Ruhr district, where a workers republic had been declared, and crush it.

A majority of the KPD leadership, egged on by the Third International representatives, now believed the moment had come for the revolutionary offensive. Seizing on a the announcement by the Social Democrat minister for security that he was sending in police to restore “order” in the mining district of Mansfield in central Germany, the KPD called a nationwide general strike. The response was poor, the party had misjudged the mood. In a desperate effort to turn things round they recruited unemployed workers to try and picket out factories leading to fistfights between workers. Armed groups of Communists took over factories to try to enforce the strike call and party members staged attacks on themselves and their offices saying it was a fascist attack and demanding workers down tools in response. It was desperate stuff and led to disaster. The strike had to be called off. The party lost a hundred thousand members, including many of its most experienced trade unionists. Paul Levi attacked the March Action, as it became known, openly and was expelled.

At the Third Congress of the Communist international Lenin and Trotsky manoeuvred to defeat Zinoviev and his supporters, insisting that the Communist Parties had to follow a united front policy seeking to patiently win a majority of the working class. They were not able to win Levi’s reinstatement. When it was argued that Levi had lost his head Trotsky replied that at least he had a head to lose!

Meanwhile the crisis sweeping Germany continued with a growing polarisation. In June 1922 the German foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, was assassinated by the far right, following his signing a treaty renouncing all German claims on territory it had lost as a consequence of the peace treaty imposed on it at the end of the war. Rathenau was also hated by the fascists because he was Jewish.

The killers hoped the assassination would lead to a civil war which the right would win. Instead millions of people took to the streets against the killing. The KPD backed the protests but in the slogans and declarations went too far in positioning themselves as champions of parliamentary democracy against the right. The KPD was now swinging from sectarianism to opportunism, adapting politically to those who it was allied with short term in united fronts round single issues. Of these twin errors, Broué writes:

“The logic of both of them alike would lead the party to disaster, either as a sect isolated by the policy of putchism, the theory of the offensive—or in dissolution within a general unity, the price of conceding too much in order to forge a united front at any price’. The consequence was a cumulative loss of self-belief by the leadership: ‘Convinced by the leadership of the International of the magnitude of their blunder [in March 1921], they lost confidence in their own ability to think, and often failed to defend their viewpoint, so that they systematically accepted that of the Bolsheviks, who had at least been able to win their revolutionary struggle.”

The revolutionary crisis reached its crescendo in the autumn of 1923, as I’ve described elsewhere. But the Communists, who by October of that year had, probably, the support of a majority of the German working class, had no confidence in their own ability to lead a revolution – they asked the Russians. Trotsky wanted to be sent to Germany demanding a date be set for insurrection, but he was already being squeezed out of the leadership in the wake of Lenin’s final illness, and Zinoviev took charge.

The revolutionary moment was allowed to pass, and we pay the price. Trotsky summarized the situation in The Lessons of October, published in 1924, where he laid blame for the failure squarely on Zinoviev, as well as the KPD leadership:

“During a relatively languid course of political life, [mistakes] are remedied, even if with losses, but without a catastrophe. But in periods of acute revolutionary crisis, it is precisely time that is lacking…. The incongruity between a revolutionary leadership (hesitation, vacillation, temporizing in the face of the furious assault of the bourgeoisie) and the objective tasks, can lead in the course of a few weeks and even days to a catastrophe and to a loss of what took years of work to prepare.”

Apart from sighing over a lost opportunity why bother with such a little known episode? The answer is because the German Revolution of 1918-1923 is the closest model for what revolution would like in Scotland and Western Europe today – not in the detail but in the timescale and in relation as to how revolutionaries have to deal with faith in parliamentary democracy and the leadership of parties like the Labour Party. Surely the latter is a discredited force, you might respond? Well look at how Ed Miliband picked up support with his promise to freeze energy prices, that took very little but showed how much working class people who traditionally vote Labour wanted “their party back.”

From Communiqué

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.